Former NHLer Kennedy to testify about sexual abuse

Sheldon Kennedy is in the U.S. capital this week, eager to appear as the marquee witness at a congressional hearing delving into sexual abuse of children in the aftermath of shocking Penn State allegations.
Sheldon Kennedy's story was back in the news last week after his former coach in junior hockey pleaded guilty to sexual assaults involving two other former players. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Sheldon Kennedy is in the U.S. capital this week, eager to appear as the marquee witness at a congressional hearing delving into sexual abuse of children in the aftermath of shocking Penn State allegations that have stunned a nation.   

And the one-time NHL player, the public face of Canada's own version of the college football scandal, says he'll brook no nonsense from right-wing U.S. lawmakers who oppose government regulation on almost every front.   

"Bring it on," Kennedy said at a downtown D.C. coffee shop on the eve of his testimony. "We're going at them hard."   

Canada is a world leader in the prevention and investigation of child sexual abuse, Kennedy said.   

That's largely because Canadian victims, officials and stakeholders have worked together to put in place an array of tough anti-abuse measures in the years since Kennedy came forward to accuse his junior hockey coach of sexually preying on him for years.   

"And we're going to continue to be world leaders on the prevention of abuse and this is going to propel us to go even further in Canada," he said.   

"We're over the hump, we're about solution in Canada. People are now coming forward in Canada because they feel safe ... Americans have a lot to learn from us; we're a lot further advanced."   

That could very well mean more stringent American laws and regulations surrounding children's and teen's sports teams and other institutions involving kids and teenagers, in order to prevent future Penn States from happening, he added.   

"Laws are not easy to change, and social change is hard," said Kennedy, a spokesman for violence and abuse prevention programs with the Canadian Red Cross who also started up his own advocacy company, Respect Group Inc.   

"But when you look at what we've done and what we've been able to do in Canada, I think we've been able to accomplish both. We've learned a lot and we're talking solutions up there more than they are down here; they're talking disbelief."  

Widespread trouble

Last month, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, was charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a period of 15 years. Investigators say several high-ranking university officials knew about the abuse, but failed to notify police.   

The scandal resulted in the firing of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. Penn State president Graham Spanier also lost his job and two other college officials have been charged with perjury and failing to report the assaults, some of which took place on campus.   

For Canadians — and Kennedy in particular — the scandal is sickly familiar.   

Kennedy, now 42, stunned Canada in 1997 when he stepped forward to accuse his former junior hockey coach, Graham James, of sexual abuse.   

Kennedy says he didn't tell his teammates about the abuse for fear they'd believe he was gay. He didn't tell his mother because he was afraid she'd pull him from Canada's revered junior team.   

James was convicted of some 350 sexual abuse charges and served 3½ years in prison. He was quietly pardoned in 2007  — something that touched off a national firestorm when it was revealed to The Canadian Press by Greg Gilhooly, another alleged James victim.   

Last week, James pleaded guilty to fresh allegations of sexual assault from two more of his former players, one of whom was NHL star Theo Fleury. Charges related to Gilhooly's allegations were stayed.   

The political and legislative fallout of the James pardon continues to this day, resulting in much closer scrutiny of all applicants and stringent new rules that prohibit record suspensions for certain types of convicts, including sex offences against minors.   

Kennedy says he's travelled to D.C. with Gilhooly top of mind. The one-time Winnipeg goalie had the publication ban on his name lifted last week so he could speak out about the abuse.   

"That's where my thoughts are; Greg's done more behind the scenes than a lot of people have," he said.   

Words of encouragement

As for his own decision to come forward 14 years ago, Kennedy said it was a personally healthy one. He had words of encouragement for other young victims of sexual abuse, at Penn State and beyond.   

"Pedophiles and perpetrators — they prey on social ignorance and social indifference around these issues; they love it," he said.   

"I believe that we need to get our power back, we need to confront the person who abused us and we need to know that it wasn't our fault and that he was in the wrong."   

It's not an easy choice to make, he said, but ultimately better than suffering in silence for years as personal relationships of all types falter and fail in the fallout because victims are too afraid to "let anyone in."   

"It doesn't mean that life is going to be rosy; there's a lot of hard work, in my case anyway, to get to a point where I don't feel that person has the power over me anymore," he said, adding that keeping the secret was painful and affected all of his intimate relationships.   

"But you have to learn how to live with that stuff and move forward."   

Tuesday's hearing is before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on children and families that plans to examine America's child abuse laws.   

In particular, the subcommittee says it wants to review the adequacy of current federal and state reporting requirements, in addition to proposals aimed at both preventing abuse and intervening when abuse is suspected.   

Kennedy will deliver remarks calling on senators to seriously tackle the issue, and then take questions.   

The former hockey star says every adult associated with every organization involving children, from sports teams to church choirs and Boy Scouts, needs to made aware of the warning signs of sexual abuse and must be compelled to speak up when something doesn't seem right.   

"We need to empower the bystander; that is my message, that's what we've found works," he said.   

"I really have to believe that the majority of adults in our country and in this country want to do the right thing. But people don't even know what's expected of them, even though we're all expected to do the right thing. But what is that? We have to give them the tools and the knowledge."